Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Veterinarians work to save rhinos wounded in poaching attempts

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Amid rampant poaching of rhinoceroses, veterinarians in South Africa are working to expand their knowledge of the animals’ anatomy so they can better treat those that survive attacks. “We know very little about rhinos. We treat them as a large horse,” said veterinarian Katja Koeppel of the Johannesburg Zoo. Up to 60 rhinos survive attacks each year, estimates veterinarian Johan Marais, a University of Pretoria equine and wildlife surgeon, and South African officials say the number killed annually is rising. NorthJersey.com (Hackensack, N.J.) (free registration)/The Associated Press (1/19)

 

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A high-value target survives two attempts on her life. After recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, she is secretly moved to an undisclosed location in hopes that the killers won’t track her down again.

This isn’t a Hollywood thriller about a hunted witness in a police protection program. It is the tale of Phila, one of a growing number of rhinoceroses that survive horrific injuries during attempts by poachers to hack off their horns. With her horns still intact, Phila is a rare survivor of a surge in rhino killings in South Africa, home to most of the world’s rhinos.

In a new push, veterinarians are racing to learn more about rhino anatomy so they can swiftly treat survivors of attacks by poachers whose arsenal includes assault rifles and drug-tipped darts. The obstacles are funding, a dearth of past research and the logistics of helping fearsome-looking behemoths that are easily traumatized if moved from their habitat.

There are “suddenly a lot of live rhinos needing medical attention,” said Dr. Katja Koeppel, senior veterinarian at the Johannesburg Zoo, where Phila spent two years before her surreptitious return to a game reserve in November. She cautioned that treatments for rhinos are inexact: “We know very little about rhinos. We treat them as a large horse.”

The South African government says a record 668 rhinos were killed in the country in 2012, an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year. Demand is growing in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia where rhino horn is believed to have medical benefits despite evidence to the contrary. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.

Veterinarians say there are no reliable statistics for the number of rhinos injured by poachers, partly because some game reserve owners prefer to keep quiet for fear other criminals will flock to any location known to harbor rhino. Those involved in the protection of rhinos are skittish, and suspicion that people are colluding with poachers is plentiful.

One of Phila’s guardians refused to talk to The Associated Press on the telephone, saying: “I don’t know who you are.”

Dr. Georgina Cole, a veterinarian at the Johannesburg Zoo, said she knew of 10 rhinos that survived poaching attacks in South Africa in the past year, and she believes the unreported number is much higher.

Dr. Johan Marais, an equine and wildlife surgeon at the University of Pretoria, said a “conservative” estimate of rhino survivors is 40 to 60 a year. Marais predicted: “As the amount of poaching goes up, we’ll probably get more and more of these survivors.”

Marais said he recently visited a rhino that still had bullet pieces in its flesh from a shooting a year ago. The rhino suffered lingering wound infections. While a few lucky rhinos elude their shooters, others survive a grislier fate: being shot with a tranquilizer dart and having their horns hurriedly carved out of their faces while they are unconscious.

“Guys are calling us up and saying, ‘Listen, I have a rhino that was poached and its horn has been hacked off. It’s alive. Can you please come and fix it,'” said Marais, who seeks funding for CAT scan software to map the head of the white rhino. Three-dimensional images of facial muscles, nerves, blood vessels and the sinuses around the horns would make surgical treatment easier.

In February 2011, Dr. William Fowlds, a wildlife veterinarian, was summoned to a game reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province where Geza, a rhino, had lost its horns to machete-wielding poachers. The rhino was clinging to life.

“In a small clearing enclosed by bush, stood an animal, hardly recognizable as a rhino. His profile completely changed by the absence of those iconic horns attributed to no other species,” Fowlds wrote in an emotional account. “More nauseating than that, the skull and soft tissue trauma extended down into the remnants of his face, through the outer layer of bones, to expose the underlying nasal passages.”

After consultations, he euthanized Geza with a dart containing an overdose of anesthetics.

Phila, the rhino that recently left the Johannesburg Zoo, was shot a total of nine times on two separate occasions and suffered injuries to her sinus cavity, nose and shoulder area, and she lost hearing in her right ear, according to veterinarians. Despite the heavy injuries, Phila escaped from poachers in both attacks.

Although some bullet fragments could not be removed, she recovered after six months of treatment with antibiotics, as well as a medicinal spray and fly repellent for her wounds. It took another year and a half before her handlers settled on a location in the wild where they thought she would be safe from poachers.

Still, Phila’s departure from the zoo was conducted without publicity because of fears that poachers might infiltrate the zoo or hijack the vehicle transporting her to a game reserve. There are reports of poachers offering more than $1,000 just for a tip about where to find a rhino.

In November 2011, the University of Pretoria hosted a workshop for more than 80 veterinarians who discussed the care of injured rhinos, post-mortem methods and the collection of blood samples whose analysis can guide treatment. One research goal is to be able to make hard choices about whether to try to save an injured rhino, or resort to euthanasia.

Facial gouging is not always fatal, but what seem like minor injuries can be. A rhino sedated by poacher darts might lie too long on its side, causing myopathy — or muscle damage — because the tremendous weight of the rhino’s body reduces blood flow. Myopathy can kill rhinos, Cole said.

Frederick Selous a British hunter and conservationist who died in 1917 wrote how rhinos die quickly if shot through both lungs or the upper part of the heart, but said they “will go on to all eternity” if shot from in front, and the bullet only perforates one lung. He also wrote about the elemental role of the horn in the mother-offspring relationship.

“A small calf always runs in front of its mother, and she appears to guide it by holding the point of her horn upon the little animal’s rump; and it is perfectly wonderful to note how in all sudden changes of paces, from a trot to a gallop or vice versa, the same position is always exactly maintained.”

This month, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South Africa-based conservation group, said it was recently called to help rescue a 2-month-old rhino that lost its mother to poachers and suffered 18 deep lacerations on her face. The group believes the gang slashed at the baby, whose horns have not yet grown out, because it tried to return to its dead mother while they were removing its horn.

The calf, the trust says, is doing well.

Orangutans at risk as use of palm oil increases

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Read about how AHF helps Orangutans

 

By Ian Williams NBC News Correspondent

One of the Sumatran orangutan’s richest habitats, an area of swampland containing the highest density of the red apes on the planet, is being illegally slashed and burned by palm oil companies to make way for palm oil plantations.

“If we can’t stop them here, then there really is no hope,” said Ian Singleton as we stood on the edge of what had once been pristine forest, home to hundreds of orangutans, but now reduced to a charred wilderness as far as the eye could see. As he spoke we could hear the distant sound of a chain saw.

Singleton runs the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Programme, an organization at the forefront of a battle to save what remains of the forest and the apes.

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There are fewer than 7,000 of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans left in the wild, according to a 2008 survey completed by Singleton and other scientists. The largest number live in a vast area of swampland and lowland forest close to the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

“Orangutan paradise,” Singleton calls the area – but it’s a paradise under threat.

Land cleared, drained and burned in the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest.

The key battleground for Singleton is the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest, much of which has already been converted to palm oil plantations. The relentless march of the palm oil business is the biggest threat facing the orangutans.

A cheap, edible oil, palm oil is found in almost half of all packaged supermarket products, from instant noodles, to cookies to ice cream, and Indonesia is the world’s biggest supplier.

“Look, look,” said Singleton, handing me a pair of field glasses. In the distance a large male orangutan moved gracefully across the canopy of trees. We would soon see three more.


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There is something spell-binding about seeing an orangutan in its natural habitat, and for a while we were glued to that point, watching these high-wire masters at play. But excitement here was quickly tempered by the realization that the area of forest we were looking at was isolated and surrounded on three sides by plantations that were moving ever closer.

Singleton concluded that these apes had just about enough forest to survive – for now.

When he believes an orangutan is in danger, he said, he sends in a team to track and sedate it, transferring the animal to a sprawling rescue center he runs on the edge of the Sumatran city of Medan.

Singleton sometimes refers to the center as a “refugee camp.”

“These are the lucky few,” Singleton told me during a visit there. “They are effectively refugees from forests that no longer exist.”

And like in refugee camps across the world, there was no shortage of agonizing stories of suffering and survival, but also resilience and hope.

Chocolate, a 2-year-old toddler, rescued from animal traders

Among the 55 orangutans in Singleton’s care was a scrawny and bewildered 2-year-old named Chocolate, the newest arrival. Merely a toddler, Chocolate wrapped his arms and legs around Singleton, who lifted him carefully from a cot designed for a child.

“He’s a bit thin, but otherwise quite fit and feisty,” Singleton said. He believes the mother was probably shot.

“There’s no way a mother would allow a baby to be taken from her, not while she’s still alive – never in a million years,” said Singleton. Among orangutans, the bond between mother and child is one of the strongest in the animal kingdom, a child staying with its mom for as many as nine years.

Most orangutans arrive at the center as toddlers, many lacking even the basic confidence to climb trees. You’d have thought that came naturally to a great ape, but some youngsters will only scale the branches in the presence of a keeper, who acts as a surrogate mom.

That’s not a term Singleton likes. The aim of his organization is to build the animals’ skills and independence for an eventual return to the wild, though initially many are dependent on him and his staff.

He also introduced me to Leuser, a big male, probably more than 40 years old and blind.

“One day he went too near farmers at the edge of the forest and they took pot shots at him. They put 62 air rifle pellets into him, mostly around the head,“ Singleton said. Forty-eight are still there, and the X-ray resembles the speckled roof of a planetarium.

In the top corner of a nearby cage, 9-year-old Bahroeni was sitting inside a large tire, one of his legs dangling, encased in a cast. He, too, had been sold as a pet when he was a toddler and, as he grew up, the nylon rope that tied him to a fence was never removed.

Plantation owners and small holders frequently regard orangutans as pests, though there is profit to be had in illegally selling off the babies as pets.

“The law is very clear, but the enforcement is very weak,” Singleton said, tickling one of the toddlers, who reacts with child-like convulsions.

The center aims to return its refugees to the wild, in an undisturbed part of the forest, as soon as they are able to go.

As we spoke, a group of keepers from the rescue center carried on a stretcher an anaesthetised young male named Dito. They lay him out on an operating table in the medical center and after making a small insertion in his neck, they implanted a transmitter.

The transmitter will help Singleton monitor Dito’s movements, “so you know what they’re doing, where they’re going. That they are OK.”

Singleton and colleague Graham Usher launch drone with camera to monitor illegal deforestation.

On the Tripa frontline, Singleton and his team are now deploying a powerful new weapon: a drone, equipped with a small camera that will help them identify illegal forest clearing.

The area is supposed to be a protected forest, and using fire to clear the land as well as converting deep peat are illegal practices under Indonesian law.

Conservationists did have one recent victory, when one of the worst culprits, a company called Kallista Alam, had one of its operating permits revoked. That’s never happened before, since Indonesia has a terrible track record in enforcing its own environmental laws.

And Singleton says satellite imagery shows that burning has continued, even after Kallista Alam’s permit was revoked.

He is now urging criminal action against such companies and others involved in the illegal clearing, asking for their permits to be revoked, and the peat land to be restored.

For all the horrible destruction laid out before us in Tripa, Singleton remains optimistic, believing that the tide may now be turning in favor of Indonesia’s once lonely conservationists, and that the impunity with which the plantations destroyed the forest is at last being challenged.

Before leaving Sumatra, Singleton took me to an area where his refugees are being re-located. He told me that for him nothing can quite match the satisfaction of seeing the often bruised and terrified animals that turn up at his rescue center back in the wild.

“Now they have a second chance of spending 30 or 40 years in the wild, and of having four or five babies,” he told me as we tracked some recently released orangutans days later.

There was a sudden movement of red fur through the thick forest canopy above us.

“I get a real kick out of this,” Singleton said. “It’s as if they never left, and if we’d not been here they’d have died.”

Editor’s Note: Ian Williams’ full report, ‘At What Cost?’ airs Thursday, October 18 at 10pm/9c on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.